Sunday, March 25, 2007

Simple Baked Lasagne

I know lasagne is a bit past it, in culinary terms; it's had its hey-day and now nobody serves lasagne at dinner parties anymore, even the pseudo-exotic Mediterranean vegetable variety. Still, regardless of passing trends, I continue to cook lasagne. I've tried quite a few versions of the ragu sauce that is its base and several different cheese or bechamel sauces; I've made it using my own freshly-made lasagne sheets, Tesco's 'fresh' lasagne sheets and dried lasagne sheets from a box. My favourite lasagne, however, still comes from Jamie's Dinners, the book that accompanied the TV show where he changed the fate of school dinners, except that the book came out before the television series and bore little relation to it. This book has mixed reviews, as I understand it, but it has some old faithfuls in it for me, and some recipes with a new twist. The slow-cooked lamb, turned the second night into shepherds pie; the fish with Parmesan crust; the lamb cutlets with basil sauce; the quesadillas with guacamole; the burger; the chicken tikka masala that is unbelievably easy and good... Oh and the simple baked lasagne, which is simple, but has a layer of butternut squash in it, that lifts it way above the ordinary.

Lasagne, to me, is comfort food; it is out of place in the summer, even a British summer, but it is incredibly warming in the autumn and winter. I realized I hadn't yet made lasagne this winter - thanks to the Jamie project - and set about rectifying that. Jamie's ragu sauce includes pancetta, beef and pork mince, cinnamon, onions, garlic, carrots, celery, tinned plum tomatoes, red wine or water. I left it to simmer away in the slow cooker yesterday while we went to Durham with my parents (back from Gran Canaria and unapologetically brown). I don't cook the lasagne quite as Jamie suggests (he lines the oven dish with pasta, and uses more layers than me), but I do include his layer of butternut squash, first roasted in the oven with crushed dried red chilli, coriander seed and black pepper. I also use his version of white sauce (creme fraiche with anchovies chopped into it and grated Parmesan), and, as suggested, tear mozzarella over the top. I recommend this over boring bechamel (which isn't to denigrate bechamel, particularly - I make it in other lasagnes and it's nice, really; this is just easier and really nice).

I watched part of an episode of Nigella Bites earlier, the one where she cooks to commemorate the past, her grandmother, her mother, her sister Thomasina, and where she makes liptauer. I recall my friend Victoria's verdict when Nigella's children dive into the fridge at the end of the programme and gobble up the liptauer: 'what did she bribe them with to get them to eat that?' I have never made liptauer and am sure it's really good, but it doesn't appear, at any rate, particularly child-friendly. Or else her children have better taste than most (which is obviously possible). Nigella also deep-fries whitebait in that episode. I used to love whitebait, and then on a Christmas works' night out three years ago, I was fed some suspect whitebait and could taste it for days afterwards. (Is it just me or is the food on work nights out inevitably revolting?)

The clocks went forward last night, spelling the beginning of British summertime. The sky was relentlessly blue today and from indoors it seemed as though summer had indeed begun; outside, though, a chilly wind still dominated. Nonetheless, changing the clocks seems to have a psychological impact, marking the time to wake up rather than hibernate, to look forward to warmer days, and to plan the summer. That is, if you aren't still knocked for six by having to get up an hour earlier.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Chilli con carne - from Happy Days

For a while, Happy Days with the Naked Chef was my favourite of Jamie's early books; as soon as I got it (my brother actually bought it for me, when it came out, from the book people), I bonded with it. The baked onions with cheese and cream are divine, as are the roasted winter vegetables and the parsnip and pancetta tagliatelle. This is the book where Jamie introduces his chicken-in-a-bag (roasted in the oven) and unveils more dried pasta dishes than in the previous books. The chilli, though, is an ultimate chilli recipe, for me, anyway. For a while we ate it almost every week; it is a useful dish to make ahead and serves as a tasty, easy, weeknight dinner if you do cook it in advance. It's also versatile - you can team it with rice or with bread and salad, as Jamie suggests, or with flour tortillas, guacamole and sour cream. Oh, and it has tinned kidney beans in it, so you don't have to remember to soak the beans. Bonus. This chilli is one of my failsafe recipes of all time; I don't need the recipe now, I make it on autopilot. The other day we both craved it so I made it again - for the first time in months and months. It won't be months before I make it again.

Everyone knows how to make chilli. This one isn't authentic, one presumes, but I've never been all that bothered about authentic, particularly for a dish of uncertain origins like this one. Jamie's version involves:
- blitzing onion and garlic in a food processor and gently frying until soft
- adding minced beef, powdered cumin and chilli powder, a chopped fresh red chilli (deseeded), 2 tins chopped tomatoes, a wineglass of water, a cinnamon stick, and 200g sundried tomatoes in oil, blitzed with some of their oil to make a paste, and simmering with greaseproof paper and a lid on the pan for 1 hour,
then adding 2 drained tins kidney beans and simmering for a further 30 minutes.

I like the addition of the sundried tomatoes - when I've been too lazy to use my Magimix, I've chopped the onion and garlic and then used sundried tomato paste, but it honestly isn't the same, not really. This chilli isn't super-hot; it isn't exceptionally different; it's just really nice. Proof of which lies in my having cooked it over and over again for the last five years.

Chilli, wrapped in tortillas, guacamole (Simon's speciality) on top and sour cream alongside.

This was our second Mexican meal recently. The first was chicken fajitas, with peppers and onions and garlic, guacamole, sour cream, grated Cheddar. OK so again inauthentic, but again I plead guilty (I do eat proper Mexican food, too).

In other news, in case anyone is interested, term ends tomorrow. Happy days indeed. Sadly contrary to popular belief, this does not mean I'm officially on holiday as of tomorrow evening, but it does mean that the pace can drop and the students go away. I might even be able to plan some Easter baking!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Return of the Naked Chef - salmon in prosciutto

I'm cheating. I figure since I made up the rules for my blog, then I'm perfectly entitled to cheat. My progress with Jamie has been shameful of late, a consequence of too much work and not enough time to seek out the ingredients I need to get on with my project. A tip to anyone considering cooking their way through a book - it is easier if you don't have a job. If you do have a job, you will end up either a) eating at midnight and slowly going mad or b) not living up to your own intentions. I have to accept that I simply don't have time at present to seek out John Dory or living lobster; I will hopefully find more time soon, but for now it is slow progress. From within my standstill, though, I've remembered Jamie's earlier books, all of which (apart from Jamie's Kitchen which I've cooked very little from and don't even know why because I love to read it; I suspect it is because the book is unwieldy and I can't easily read it while I dry my hair in the morning) have supplied me with long-term culinary favourites.

The Return of the Naked Chef gave me blackened aubergine, salad dressings, farfalle with Savoy cabbage, pancetta, thyme and mozzarella, tray-baked cod with runner beans, pancetta and pine nuts, fish pie, roasted poussin wrapped with streaky bacon and stuffed with potatoes and sage, fantastic roasted chicken, Pete's superlative lamb curry, some wicked marinades and rubs for meat, the Botham burger, baked carrots with cumin, thyme, butter and Chardonnay, not to mention Maltesers and ice cream. Some of these have become favourites; in the summer I obsessively return to the hot and fragrant or the Cajun spicy rub for chops. I hadn't tried the salmon fillet wrapped in prosciutto with herby lentils, spinach and yoghurt though. I don't know why. Then the other day I was reading this book whilst drying my hair and the recipe caught my eye and attracted my appetite. I had salmon in the freezer and the other ingredients to hand, apart from prosciutto which I cheekily replaced with pancetta.

To make it, basically, cook lentils (I used Puy lentils) until tender. Season salmon fillets with salt and pepper and wrap in the prosciutto slices, leaving some flesh exposed; drizzle with olive oil and roast for around 10 minutes. Drain the water from the lentils, season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and a few glugs of olive oil. Just before serving, stir chopped mixed herbs and spinach into the lentils on a high heat until wilted. Serve on plates with the salmon and drizzled with seasoned natural yoghurt.

The salmon was good (as fish wrapped in bacon tends to be). The lentils were really good - I loved the seasoned yoghurt, giving the dish some zing (lentils can be a bit earthy and dull). It was an easy but tasty dinner. One to add to my favourites list!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Prawn cocktail

Prawn cocktail, for me, is inextricably associated with my childhood, when it was the fall-back starter at every dinner table. I remember a friend inviting another friend and me back for tea on her 12th birthday; we had prawn cocktail and then tandoori chicken and we thought that we were the epitome of cool. Or rather she did - I predictably didn't really like prawns and was frantically thinking up ways to avoid the starter, whilst maintaining an air of sophistication. I don't remember how or if I contrived not to eat it. That episode apart, prawn cocktail was utterly ubiquitous as I was growing up, and then it did a vanishing act and I forgot about it completely until a few years ago, when I tried Delia's version for the 21st century and was bowled over- that version, like Jamie's, has avocado in it, and I can't resist avocado in any form. I am also alarmingly keen on the vile-sounding Marie Rose sauce, which by rights should terrify anyone. So if anyone is planning a retro dinner party, I'd be happy to come along.

Anyway, to make this particular prawn cocktail, I washed and drained a round and a little gem lettuce and dressed them with lemon juice, seasoning and a little olive oil. I made the Marie Rose sauce with mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and - this was a new one for me - a little brandy. I know brandy sounds really odd. I knew that as I added it, hoping it would turn out okay and wouldn't ruin that implausibly tasty sauce. To serve, I laid wedges of avocado on a plate, added the prawns and the lettuce leaves and spooned over the sauce, drizzling it around the plate, then smattering the dish with cayenne. On the side, as suggested, we had pangrattato made from stale white bread. I should add that prawn cocktail is often served in a glass; Jamie's, in the picture, is on a plate. I asked Simon what he thought about serving it in a glass and he insisted that that would be naff, so we stuck to the simple white plate. The kitsch exhibitionist in me quite liked the idea of the glass, but in the end the plate looked pretty good too...

What to say? It was really good; the brandy didn't ruin the sauce at all (although I am not convinced that the brandy is absolutely essential). It reminded me why retro isn't necessarily a bad thing and that the revival of the prawn cocktail is definitely a good thing (as long as it isn't the only starter doing the dinner party rounds). Who knows - maybe I'll kickstart the retro food revolution round here.